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Posted by: John Brace | 13th January 2016

Deputy Chief Fire Officer Phil Garrigan tells councillors “90 working days” are lost each year in responding to FOI requests

Deputy Chief Fire Officer Phil Garrigan tells councillors “90 working days” are lost each year in responding to FOI requests

                                                           

Councillors on the Performance and Scrutiny Committee (Merseyside Fire and Rescue Authority) discuss Freedom of Information requests (starts at 15m 35s) (12th January 2016)

Phil Garrigan (Deputy Chief Fire Officer) speaks about freedom of information requests to a meeting of Merseyside Fire and Rescue Authority's Performance and Scrutiny Committee (12th January 2015)

Phil Garrigan (Deputy Chief Fire Officer) speaks about freedom of information requests to a meeting of Merseyside Fire and Rescue Authority’s Performance and Scrutiny Committee (12th January 2015)

Although I am not referred to by name (but my profession is in the report), I have made Freedom of Information requests to Merseyside Fire and Rescue Service/Merseyside Fire and Rescue Authority during the period covered by that report. An appeal of a refusal of one of those Freedom of Information requests to the Information Commissioner’s Office is referred to in the report in section 16. I am therefore declaring this as an interest at the start of this piece.

I have previously written about Merseyside Fire and Rescue Authority’s response to the consultation on changes to Freedom of Information legislation.

Yesterday councillors on Merseyside Fire and Rescue Authority’s Performance and Scrutiny Committee discussed a report on Freedom of Information requests.

The report was introduced by Deputy Chief Fire Officer Phil Garrigan, who said “Thanks Chair, again this report relates to our response to a request from Members to better understand the implications of the Freedom of Information requests on the Authority and the report proposes to, it requests that Members review the information in relation to Freedom of Information requests and particularly the Freedom of Information Act 2000.

What I would say from the outset is that Merseyside Fire and Rescue Authority adheres to and is supportive of the Freedom of Information Act and values its role in allowing people to access information, giving them the right to find out about matters and decisions that affect them. I’d like to be absolutely crystal clear around that.

However, use of the Act is becoming increasingly popular and the volumes of freedom of information requests have increased over the recent years. The table on page 58 exemplifies that. We received, we saw freedom of information requests in 2011 at 72, 2014 at 138 and up until November 9th 2015 at 131.

So it’s clear evidence that the freedom of information requests coming through to Merseyside Fire and Rescue Authority has increased significantly over that period and you know Members will also be aware that we’ve been receiving those freedom of information requests it’s a requirement on us to turn around that information within twenty days unless we are able to provide you know a legitimate reason as to why we wouldn’t provide that information and even then we’d have to evidence that and reply to the particular individual who’s requested the information.

What we also recognise is that there are different courses of action that we could take. You know a) providing the information, redacting the information, refusing to supply the information by applying an exemption or determining that the work required to pull the information together is disproportionate and then notifying the application that it’s available by other means or by determining the request is vexatious and certainly the Information Commissioner has said you know when challenged around freedom of information and the number of requests it is always available for an authority or an organisation to reject it on the basis that it’s a vexatious request, but equally Members will appreciate the fact that that is quite challenging in that regard because it seems very protectionist, it seems as though we would be withholding information from a public member or an organisation on that basis and it’s very difficult to legitimise that in my view and more often than not the individuals, the staff who are seeking to provide that information will go way beyond what’s expected to provide that information as accurately as they are able to.

But it does place demands on our organisation, particularly as our organisation continues to reduce in size and when we look at the, our attempts to protect our front line operational response and we look at, it’s incumbent on us that we look at the support services that maintain the Service outside of our operational firefighters. So our non uniformed colleagues and uniformed colleagues are spending a significant amount of time dealing with freedom of information requests. So the organisation is shrinking but the demand around freedom of information is increasing.

So what the report does is it recognises that fact, it appreciates the fact that you know we will get a multitude of different requests in, some from you know members of the public, but some extended to journalists and so on and so forth and representative bodies who are utilising the information not in my view for how it was necessarily meant to be utilised in the first instance and also we have requests coming from organisations and companies where they are seeking to achieve you know some competitive advantage and I’m not sure again that was the basis of what the Freedom of Information Act was all about, but drawing all that in then and you know certainly it’s already been recognised as there’s been an independent Commission that has been invoked to review the Freedom of Information Act and we have provided a response to that saying that we are certainly for legitimate and less vexatious requests and maybe a levy or a charge may be applicable to kind of ensure that they are genuine and not repeated and that would maybe prevent some of the prolific you know press requirements being met when such a charge is applicable.

However the Information Commissioner has published a response in relation to that consultation which says, which argues against the introduction of fees and as I say you know starts to suggest that authorities should use section 14 which is around vexatious requests to avoid responding to the ones that were deemed to be you know vexatious in their very nature.

However you know in regards to that as I’ve previously stated, paragraph 12 describes the challenges around describing something as vexatious and that’s not something we would want to be perceived to be defensive over the policies and procedures that we’ve adopted as an Authority. I’m not sure we would want to be, or I certainly know we would want to be as transparent and open as possible but nevertheless what does that mean in reality?

In reality it means that since July 2015 through November, 32 complete requests have been responded to and the total of hours that have been attributed to that to deal with those requests 153 hours, which equates to 4.8 hours per a request for information. When you extrapolate that over the twelve month period it equates to 629 hours which again would be in effect is about 90 days of a person who is being responded to and obviously that’s a collective person because that’s an hour of one department, two hours of another, three hours of another and so on and so forth, but in totality it’s about 90 working days that’s lost from this Authority in responding to freedom of information requests at a time when we would be better focussed on our attentions on the delivery of the service and as I say protecting the front line.

However that is the kind of realities and again this is not about us, you know, challenging the utilisation of freedom of information but certainly it questions its actual usage in its broader sense and who actually uses it for what reasons.

When you then as part and parcel of our response to the consultation we asked staff members about what they felt the implications were for themselves and they are detailed in paragraph 19.

But what I would say in kind of closing and given that the kind of clarity of 90 working days lost to responding to freedom of information requests, I’ll just bring you back to the legal implications. Merseyside Fire and Rescue Authority has a duty under the Freedom of Information Act to deal with requests promptly and in the event no later than 20 working days after receipt of the requests.

Merseyside Fire and Rescue Authority can exercise its rights under the Act if an exemption has been correctly applied and in most cases the public interest test is then applied to ensure any exemptions are correctly applied under those circumstances.

So there are ways in which we can deal with them, but again just to reiterate the point, our intent is to be as open and transparent as possible. We are you know responding to each and every one and it does incur a significant cost associated with them of 90 days across the whole 12 months of the organisation irrespective of who necessarily deals with them but certainly there are members of certain teams who spend an inordinate amount of time dealing with requests. I’m happy to take any questions on that Chair.”

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Responses

  1. Don’t tell me some one measured the time to deal with FOI request and thats the figure they came back with, what a cushy job that is! Can i have that job?

    • It’s not one person with the job of FOI officer spending 90 days a year responding to requests, that’s 90 days spread across a number of people’s jobs.

      Or considering there are about 1,000 employees there it’s an average of 43 minutes a year spent per an employee on answering FOI requests.

      If it really has a major impact on an organisation if an average employee is spending 43 minutes a year answering FOI requests then there’s something seriously wrong!

      • Your calculation assumes a lot John – It assumes that the nature of FOI requests are evenly distributed across an entire Council and that every employee has involvement in responding to a FOI request.

        Simply isn’t the case – There will be service areas within the Council that have never been the subject of a FOI request and, in my experience, responses to FOIs tend to be compiled/drafted by, relatively speaking, senior staff although not necessarily Managers. Certainly not evenly spread across every employee!

        I’ve set out my position on this already, FOI legislation is a groundbreaking act of law and one that should be cherished. Sadly, it is one that is also open to all manner of potential abuse by both people making requests and those public bodies supplying it.

        John, I think you are a valuable asset to Wirral and provide a useful public service but, respectfully I suggest that, you’re a little blinkered when it comes to your legal rights….We all have ‘rights’ conferred upon us by law, however is it reasonable to invoke these rights so frequently, which can have significant implications on public resources, simply because we CAN?

        If the FOI legislation could be a described as having a ‘spirit’, I don’t believe this was it.

        • As this story is about Merseyside Fire and Rescue Service/Merseyside Fire and Rescue Authority I’ll state I’ve made four FOI requests to them over the last 12 months.

          They estimate that 152 requests were made to them over the same time period and that ten individuals made between 2 and 4 FOI requests to Merseyside Fire and Rescue Service over the same period. There were two individuals that made more than these, one person made five and one made eight.

          There are plenty of ways public authorities can turn down requests that are vexatious or would take too long to answer (that is over the 18 hour limit).

          I don’t think that making a FOI request to Merseyside Fire and Rescue Service on average every 3 months is having a significant impact when they calculate it takes about 4.8 hours on average to respond.

          The responses to each request have been information not held, information supplied, information refused (currently appealed to ICO) and information supplied but with some redactions.

          The third one, referred to in the report they estimate has taken them 20 hours so far, but that’s because they decided to refuse it! It’s only for about ~3 A4 pages of information!

          As to Wirral Council, they are an organisation with three times the number of staff as Merseyside Fire and Rescue Service and a much bigger budget.

          Therefore they should expect a higher number of FOI requests than MFRS as they spend more public money.

  2. Surely it’s vexatious that certain members of Merseyside Fire and Rescue Authority deem it reasonable and rational to criticise those who want the truth and who refuse to sit like sponges, absorbing and regurgitating what they hear without any critique or evaluation.

    All MFRA Members have to do is ask a VERY highly paid member of MFRS a simple question that anyone with a dictionary, a smart ‘phone or the bloody internet could answer for themselves and they will be answered.

    How I wish that Phil Garrigan had pointed out the bleeding obvious irony and said,

    ” You all seem to agree that answering the public’s questions comes at a certain cost, and well, really we can’t afford to respond to these. But how can I get away with saying this when when I’m paid a wedge, you’re paid a tax free allowance and expenses and are sitting there arguing that members of the public are wasting money asking highly relevant questions when you’re asking questions like,

    “I don’t know what baritric.is… it’s not dead is it?”

    What about medical emergencies and patient confidentiaity?

    “How far have MP’s been briefed on this?”

    (Section 21 clearly does not apply to Members of the Authority).

    And, oh, I think he must have been joking, but FOI’S are, “generated by people who haven’t got better things to do” and those, “down there in London are better placed…”

    So to you, most of us have far better things to do. And despite your claims, there are gains to be made all around. Whether it’s; keeping an eye on the public purse and expenditure, people’s interests in local environmental issues or whatever it may be. People don’t put FOI’S for fun! Those who do are clearly not content with a “little bit of knowledge.” and need the opportunity to try to access the truth that would not normally be forthcoming..

    Surely it’s obvious that there’s a lack of faith and trust!

    Shouldn’t that be the concern of Authorities? And maybe, the number of FOI’s would decrease if there was more transparency?

    I

    • I did think of writing a transcript of what the councillors said afterwards, but you’ve obviously watched the video. Thankfully you don’t have to wait 20 working days for this reply and then be told you can’t read parts of it because it’s exempt from disclosure!

      What you don’t know is that when this meeting was supposed to start (1.00pm) it wasn’t quorate, so the start time was delayed by 15 minutes.

      5 councillors are required to be there but there were only three.

      At 1.15pm it didn’t start (although the constitution states it has to be abandoned at this point if five aren’t there) as they were told two councillors were on their way.

      Although this decision to delay is according to them not part of the meeting as it wasn’t “officially open”.

      It was about 1.21pm before the meeting was quorate and past half past one before the meeting officially started.

      Oh and one of those five councillors left the meeting part way through to have a cigarette (so the meeting had to stop) and another had to leave shortly after 2.00pm for another important meeting so the meeting came to an end then.

      So twenty minutes of the time of about a dozen highly paid MFRS employees was wasted by councillors not bothering to show up on time.

      However an honest answer to the questions:

      1) Writing people so fat we couldn’t get them out of burning buildings would seem cruel so we put bariatrics instead.

      2) Are councillors really so stupid that they think that MFRS would release medically confidential information in response to a FOI request?

      3) Considering the comments/questions so far it’s no wonder you think it’s better off leaving scrutiny of legislation to MPs!

      4) The “Authorities”, acting on the political instructions of the politicians at the top would rather the public is spoon fed information and facts they want them to know rather than finding out inconvenient truths that don’t fit with the political narrative.

      5) See question 4, the politicians don’t ask probing questions and they don’t see why the public should get answers to the questions they don’t want to ask! Oh and if challenged the politicians will tell you they are “open and transparent”.


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